When I was deciding what to write about today I realized that I wanted to make it truly relevant to what’s going on now and since today is September 11th I thought I might reflect a bit on this day (using neuroscience, of course).
When I think back to the attacks and their psychological effects, my mind goes directly to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I grew up in New York City and I knew people who had been in the towers that day, some of who had experienced PTSD. There was one man I knew, a father of a boy who went to my school, who would shake uncontrollably when he felt the rumble of a subway passing beneath him because it felt like the quivers of the tower collapsing. I didn’t know too many specifics about the disorder and upon researching it I was surprised to see how many gaps still remain in what we understand about PTSD. One of the articles I read was in Scientific American and is about using a new brain-scanning technique called magnetocencephelography (or MEG) to diagnose the disorder. As of now, this would be the FIRST biological test for PTSD; if proven effective, it has the potential to lead to much better treatment options. In a study conducted in 2010 and printed in the Journal of Neural Engineering, MEG was found to be an amazing 97% accurate in diagnosing people with PTSD (though 12.4% of healthy patients were incorrectly identified). An added benefit to the MEG study is that, hopefully, patients can find some solace in the fact that PTSD really does have a biological basis. As Brian Engdahl, a psychologist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis said in the Scientific American article, ‘“You can think about it as a means to help people feel less stigma. Because there’s something different with [the] brain…it doesn’t have to do with personal weakness,” he says. “That’s almost a sigh-of-relief moment for the patient.”’ Personally, I think it’s kind of crazy that, until very recently, we had no way of biologically testing for PTSD. Looking into just this one disorder reminded me of how much of the brain is still a mystery to us all.
In the end I realized that for those who have experienced PTSD since 9/11, the terror lies in remembering but that for those of us who had more manageable reactions, the terror lies in the idea that we might forget.